#whitefeather diaries
Hilda Clark

About Hilda Clark

Hilda Clark grew up in an affluent Quaker family in the village of Street in Somerset. Her family had founded Clarks' Shoes in the nineteenth century. In the face of prejudice against working women, Hilda qualified as a doctor. 

Hilda was 33 when war broke out. A strong pacifist, she was firmly opposed to the war and appalled by the suffering it caused. She was instrumental in setting up the Friends War Victims Relief Committee and provided humanitarian assistance to civilians caught up in the war.

Great bliss

Wednesday 13 August 2014
Hilda Clark

It was October before Hilda and her comrades obtained permission from the French and British authorities to travel to France to support civilian victims of war. They arrived in Paris on 5 November and, after several delays, found themselves running a maternity hospital for refugees at Châlons-sur-Marne.

Here's one of Hilda's first letters from France, written to her friend Edith Pye.

I am reposing in great bliss as the worst anxieties of failures and muddles are over and we have succeeded both in being enough use ourselves to justify coming out, and all the expenditure, and in opening up the way to help the awful suffering which we knew all along was here.

We have got the confidence of both civil and military authorities and if in the next few weeks we can make this good, I think the limits to our work will be those of the capacities of ourselves and the volunteers who are waiting.

We have struggled and groped here till we have begun to see more clearly, and evolved a committee which met on Thursday at Vitry and showed some corporate power and some grasp of the large issues before us. We all felt better after it.

Fortunately the military authorities here are so pleased with us all that they are renewing their permits, although they are not supposed to do so till the supplementary list has been authorised at the Grand Quartier General.

I believe we have paved the way for other more competent people. I dare say it will always be difficult to reconcile the desires of our volunteers at home, who want an outlet, with both economy and efficiency of work.

It is an extraordinary problem to have these huge numbers of people turned out of their country. France is evidently full of them and can do nothing to help those in the war zone, except the small government grant. The Prefet and his staff are eager to do all they can. They will take any trouble to help us. It is wonderful how little jealousy and difficulty there is at such a time: “the sad those sadder still console.”

The first group of volunteers organised by the Friends' War Victims' Relief Committee

Caption: The first group of volunteers organised by the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. © 2014 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

Of course it is ghastly beyond all belief to these peasants to lose their homes and to be in such constant fear for their children. Oh, how thankful I am that we were here in time to do something before the cold.

The people are getting desperate with the winter coming on, the excitement is over now and there is nothing to help them in their forlorn squalor. We must do what we can and try to pass on to them the generous spirit behind us in England.

Of course, now the way has been opened, and we have been able to show people that there is work needed and that the work will be welcomed, it will be easier to get really well-qualified people in England to volunteer, and to get the right people in the right places.

The organisation that Hilda set up was called the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. It did not attract the same criticism as the Friends Ambulance Unit, as it worked with civilians and thus could not be seen as helping the war effort.

There are many organisations today that continue to provide relief in war zones, as well as to monitor human rights or support reconciliation. Is this more effective than campaigning against war, or can the two go together? What do you think?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by caitlin on
I think that any way to help people in trouble is right, what these women did is wonderful, i hope that i would have that much courage in that kind of situation

Submitted by LollyO on
Hilda's commentary that 'now the way has been opened' making it 'easier to get really well-qualified people' to volunteer, etc., is as relevant today as it was for Hilda. Today we need all those relief and human rights organizations working together. While I think that we need to take a stand against war, the work behind the scenes on the ground is essential. Anti-war marches, while important, do often tend to stir up a lot of negativity among those who think that war IS the answer. More significant, I think, is work that's done steadily and quietly behind the scenes, with visits to congressional representatives (or members of parliament), and efforts to educate the population about alternatives to violence and war.

Submitted by LollyO on
PS: The photo included in this week's post is absolutely fabulous!

Submitted by Jacquelyn on
I would like if possible to include a short extract from this letter in an exhibition about the lives of women in ww1. Can you let me know whom I should contact for permission?

Submitted by nikolasd on
Hi Jacquelyn, Thanks for your interest in this. I think it will be fine to ref our library, but I need to check with our researcher. Can you email me at nikolasd@quaker.org.uk and I will deal with this first thing on Monday. Nik
volunteer with small children in Samoens
Tuesday 29 March 2016

As Quaker relief work in France extended, Hilda chose to move from where she had been working to Sermaize, where life was slightly calmer but facilities more basic despite increasing levels of illness in the area. In one of her last surviving letters from the war years, she said that some things are too complicated to explain in writing.

A group of people pack tea
Tuesday 22 March 2016

As the year went on Hilda found herself in open conflict with the people administering the Friends War Victims Relief Committee at the Quaker central offices in London.

Family fleeing Oise with their belongings
Tuesday 15 March 2016

Hilda was busy working with refugee mothers and children in France. In July she wrote to her parents in Somerset to congratulate them on their golden wedding anniversary. She apologised for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely. 

Volunteers loading up mattresses for distribution
Tuesday 8 March 2016

Hilda continued to work with refugee children after her return to France. 

Maternity ward, Châlons-sur-Marne
Tuesday 1 March 2016

Hilda saw her work as a form of pacifism in action but was concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription.

children fleeing a town
Wednesday 11 November 2015

Despite rejoicing in aspects of her work, Hilda's letters from France in 1915 make several references to struggling with negative emotions. It's not only the suffering around her that gets her down – she also seems dismayed with the pro-war sentiments coming from Britain.

Furniture being distributed to refugees as soldiers pass along the road behind
Wednesday 4 November 2015

Hilda's letters from France contain almost no reference to the reactions she received as a female doctor, despite this being unusual at the time. At a time when most people had never travelled in a car, Hilda further challenged gender roles by regularly driving one. Here's one letter from May 1915, sent to her friend Edith in London.

Relief workers building a new section at Sermaize Château Hospital
Wednesday 28 October 2015

Hilda, a Quaker doctor from Somerset, was working in France with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. She had re-established the group to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the war. This humanitarian response unit worked with civilians close to the front line, offering practical support on the basis of a common humanity.

In the spring of 1915 she wrote home to her friend Edith Pye.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Hilda was seeing extreme suffering in France. Continuing to work as a doctor and to organise other pacifist volunteers, she expressed her feelings in another letter to her friend Edith.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Amidst fears of German troops reaching the town, Hilda's tasks seem to have included keeping everyone calm, as shown by an early letter to her friend Edith.

Wednesday 6 August

While some Quakers sought to save lives by campaigning against the war, others wanted to help war victims directly.

Related Materials

Wednesday 13 August 2014

While Britain's attention was taken up with the war, initiatives such as medical support for refugees may have received little attention.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Thousands of Belgian refugees arrived in Britain in autumn 1914 and a number were invited to sleep in Quaker meeting houses or accommodated by Quaker households.

Latest Tweets

29th Mar
Illness has increased very much everywhere and the medical side of the work is getting pressed https://t.co/CC3s6Cx6NR #WW1 #whitefeather
29th Mar
Mud pervades everything but I expect I shall soon get used to it https://t.co/CC3s6Cx6NR #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
I also have to see the representative of about the tuberculosis question https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
We are arranging for a district nurse to work in Troyes as soon as she can get permission https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
Things have got so wrong between us and the London Committee https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather